RELEGATION is supposed to demoralise clubs, especially when they have several league matches still to complete, but nothing about this season is normal for Hearts. In a perverse, final twist to a campaign that has defied all logic, the demoted Edinburgh side are positively romping to the finish.
Hearts 2-0 Ross County
Two weeks after they were consigned to the drop, they seem to be in buoyant mood. Not only have they been spared the prospect of liquidation, they are at last finding form, with ten points from a possible 12, as well as enough momentum to suggest that they can be a force in next season’s Championship.
That, of course, will depend on who is still at Tynecastle, but Gary Locke, their manager, is certainly making his case to prospective chairwoman, Ann Budge, who said at the weekend that she planned to have talks with the management team so that, when she assumes control, she will hit the ground running.
Apart from the Jamie Hamill-inspired ruckus that followed their opening goal, Saturday’s display was one that Locke could be proud of. The 2-0 victory entitled him to repeat his recent mantra that the team is improving. But for the club’s self-inflicted 15-point penalty with which they started the season, only goal difference would separate them from second-bottom Ross County. They are now a better side than the league table suggests. Their long-awaited progress is no mystery. All the young players are eight months older than they were at the start of the season, a significant leap when you are still in your teenage years. They are also adjusting at last to the rigours of top-flight football, as Sam Nicholson, their 19-year-old midfielder, acknowledges.
“It’s taken a long time for a lot of the players to improve,” said Nicholson. “It’s taken a long time to get used to this sort of standard, but once we’ve reached those standards, we are all working for each other and beginning to get results. It is a hard league, really physical. I’m still getting used to it. I’m still getting knocked off the ball.”
Nicholson and Billy King were bright performers against Ross County, as was Dale Carrick, who ran his heart out on a warm Edinburgh afternoon. His goal in stoppage time, neatly controlled and converted after Scott Robinson’s counter-attack, sealed the outcome of a match that had remained goalless for over an hour.
Despite County’s need for points, it was a curiously pedestrian affair until the 66th minute, when a goal, a ridiculous trackside melee and a red card for Hamill ignited proceedings. When Graham Carey brought down Kevin McHattie in the box, Hamill converted the penalty before needlessly making off with the ball. Yann Songo’o wanted it back, but Hamill refused, eventually obliging with a backhand throw in the wrong direction.
All of which caused quite a stir on the touchline. As Hamill returned to his own half, he knocked Derek Adams, the Ross County manager, clean off his feet, prompting another flurry of indignation. Songo’o again got involved, as did Willie Collum, the referee, who issued Hamill with his second yellow card. Songo’o also was booked.
If, as expected, Hamill is suspended for the Edinburgh derby on Sunday, he will have only himself to blame. The 27-year-old defender showed much less maturity than his baby-faced team-mates whose aim will be to extend their four-match unbeaten run when they visit Easter Road.
Three weeks ago, Hibs fans went to Tynecastle intent on relegating their city rivals. Now, it is Terry Butcher’s side who could be dragged into the mire by their oldest enemies. Just three points clear of Ross County – who occupy the relegation play-off spot – a defeat by Hearts scarcely bears thinking about.
Nicholson does his best to pretend that Hearts are focusing only on themselves, but he is fooling no-one. “We’re not going out to intentionally hurt them, we’re going out to win the game,” he said. “We’re not thinking about trying to relegate them, we’re thinking ‘let’s go and win another few points’...but it would obviously be good if we brought them down with us.”
Defeat for Hibs would also do County a much-needed favour. Adams’ side are at home to Kilmarnock on Saturday, anxious to improve on their sequence of just one win in seven outings. They competed for an hour of Saturday’s match, but even when their opponents were reduced to ten men, they lacked an edge in the final third.
Adams admitted that, despite having more to play for than Hearts, they could not match their opponents’ energy and commitment. “We have to do better than we did in the second half,” he said. “We didn’t play with the tempo Hearts did. The enthusiasm of their young kids has been remarkable throughout the season. We didn’t have the enthusiasm Hearts did, and that’s disappointing.”